Eye Witness Reports of the Burning of the NIAGARA- Fall 1956

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

Edited by William A. McDonald 

The short stretch of water along the west shore of Lake Michigan between Port Washington and Manitowoc seemed to be an ill fated spot for the early steamers which ran in the passenger trade of the period. The settlers had barely recovered from the shock caused by the loss of the Phoenix north of Sheboygan when they were again startled by another disaster in which, while the loss was not as great as the Phoenix, it was heavy enough to arouse the sympathy of everybody and was accompanied by harrowing scenes which were the more terrifying that they happened in the sight of hundreds on the shore and scores on vessels in the vicinity which were hurrying to the assistance of the sufferers.


On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 24, 1856, the steamer Niagara of the Reed Line caught fire and burned to the water’s edge five miles off Port Washington and two or three miles north of that place. The Niagara was one of the finest boats on the lakes at that time and traded between Collingwood and Chicago. She was commanded by Captain Fred Miller, an excellent sailor and a favorite with the traveling public and for this reason the steamer had on board a large list of passengers in the cabin and steerage, on what was to be her last trip. The steamer left Collingwood two days before the tragedy with 75 cabin passengers and about 180 in the steerage, most of them emigrants bound for the west. At Mackinac where the Niagara put in, six more cabin passengers were taken on board and at Manitowoc several more were added while a number were put off to make their way overland to points where they intended locating. This left, as near as any of the officers could determine, between 285 and 300 passengers and crew on board when the boat left Sheboygan for Milwaukee that pleasant September afternoon. The day was one of the beautiful fall days and the little village of Port Washington could be seen as a dull blot to the southwest.

The dread cry of “fire” ran through the cabin causing the blood to chill in the hearts of all who heard it. The fire, as near as could be determined, broke out around the smoke stacks where they issued from the deck. Everything in the vicinity was as dry as tinder, and almost before the crew or passengers could realize the danger they were in, the flames had spread to an extent that the hose, which Captain Miller, awakened from a sleep in his cabin, ordered manned, was of no use.

At the first cry there was the wildest excitement. The passengers rushed here and there – families gathered together to face death or help each other to escape as the case might be. Captain Miller moved, calm and energetic, issuing orders that were promptly obeyed by the crew. It was impossible to save the boat and the only hope was that the fire would not drive the people on board into the water until help could reach them, and help was coming as fast as sail and steam could bring it. The schooners Dan Marble, Pilot and another schooner, the name which is not remembered, were a short distance away and they at once put for the burning steamer – with every sail drawing the light breeze. The steamer Illinois with Captain Blake in command was some miles away but went at once to the scene. About ten miles to the south the steamer Traveler with Captain Sweeney was coming to the rescue.

But in spite of all this help so near, scores were to give up their lives before assistance could reach them. The boat when the fire was discovered was headed for the shore with all steam on, but the engineers could not remain at their posts for more than a few minutes. Five minutes from the time the alarm was given the wheels stopped and the steamer was left to drift. In 15 minutes from that time, so swiftly did the flames do their work, there was not a person left on board. When Captain Miller found there was no hope of saving the boat he ordered the doors of the staterooms thrown overboard for floats and supplemented this by throwing over washstands, chairs and everything which would float a person for a few minutes until the rescuers, coming up on every side, might reach them.

There is no doubt that the action taken by Captain Miller saved many lives, but as it was, between 150 and 180 lives were lost. As the flames crept forward and aft the passengers were crowded closer and closer to the bow and stern and one by one had to plunge into the cold lake. The rescuers could see the people dropping in clusters into the lake, most of them never to rise again. Ropes had been lowered alongside the steamer in order to give those in the water something to cling to. There they hung, as one who was present that day said, “like strings of fish,” until the ropes were burned off when they sank and drowned. It was an awful sight and the pity of it was that a few seconds made the difference of life or death to so many.

Two boats were safely lowered and got away for shore. Another boat was being lowered from the stern when Congressman John B. Macy, who was a passenger on the boat, jumped into it and being a heavy man, tore out the falls on one end and the boat load was dropped into the lake. The first to reach the scene were the sailing craft who threw overboard their deck loads of lumber to those struggling in the water and thus they saved many lives. Whole families were wiped out, one member being saved while the rest perished. One such case was Harvey Aimsworth, who had taken passage for Wisconsin from Vermont with the intention of settling near Baraboo. With him were his wife, three children, his brother and sister-in-law and his father. His brother had disembarked at Sheboygan to make the trip overland ahead of him while the rest of the party went on to disembark at Milwaukee. Of this family only Mr. Aimsworth was saved. There were many more such cases.

These saved, and as many of the dead as could be picked up, were taken into Port Washington where the living were cared for and the dead buried. Among the rescuers was Captain Fred Pabst who was first mate on the steamer Traveler. When the steamers with their freight of living and dead came to the pier at Port Washington, the scene was a sad one .

The best report of the disaster told at the time was by C. D. Westerbrook, then a resident of Green Bay and a passenger on the Niagara. He said,

I was in the after saloon about four P. M. when I heard the cry of ‘fire.’ I saw the flames bursting out from the lining of the engine room. Congressman John B. Macy seemed greatly excited and cried ‘we are lost.’ The man at the wheel called for help and I went into the wheel­house and helped him head the boat for the shore. We were about two or three miles out and about four miles north of Port Washington. The wind was blowing fresh down the lake. The engines stopped in about five minutes and the vessel drifted rapidly before the wind. I went to the deck and got a plank which I carried aft, and clung to the boat till driven off by the flames. About 30 of the crew and passengers got off on planks from the forward deck and the steamer drifted rapidly by from them. A boat put off with 22 persons in it. The life boat was thrown from the deck into the water and upset. The crowd jumped for it and it rolled over. (This was probably the boat lowered from the stern which was upset by Congressman Macy jumping into it.) Ropes were attached to the guards aft and let down and a number of people, mostly women and children, slid down and hung on in clusters until the ropes were burned off and they were drowned. When the flames came near me I flung my plank into the water and jumped for it but others struggled for it and I left it and swam to a cabin door and by the aid of that reached the guards and climbed up into them. I was there with Captain Miller when the ropes burned and we shoved planks and spars among the people but they failed to get them. We remained there until taken off by the boats from the Traveler. It did not seem more than 15 or 20 minutes from the time the fire broke out before there was not a soul on board the steamer. All had been forced overboard by the flames.

Mr. Hurson, who was one of the crew of Captain Pabst’s boat engaged in the rescue of the passengers and crew, also gives a graphic account of the scenes of that day. In recalling its incidents he said:

I was on the steamer Traveler at that time, running between Chicago and Manitowoc. C. C. Wheeler, now of the Northwestern Road, was clerk on the boat and Captain Pabst was First Mate. We were wooding up at Port Ullio when the Niagara was discovered to be on fire. I think it was Wheeler who first discovered her condition. He was on deck with a big telescope and was watching the steamer when he saw the smoke bursting out from her decks. Steam was made as rapidly as possible and we started for the burning steamer. I think we carried more steam that day than the law allowed. Lard, grease and everything which would tend to get steam quickly was used. We were about seven miles from the steamer, Port Ullio being five miles this side of Port Washington and the Niagara was about two miles above Port Washington. The Traveler was capable of making 12 or 13 miles an hour usually but that day she made more. The engines were crowded to their utmost capacity. As we neared the burning boat, we could see the people in the front part of the boat, dropping off one by one and after a short struggle, sinking under the water. There was a schooner near the steamer when the fire broke out and she was the first to get near enough to rescue the drowning people. She was loaded with lumber and as the vessel came up with them, the crew threw overboard part of the deck load of lumber which was seized and kept the people afloat until they could be picked up. The steamer Illinois was the first to reach the wreck and picked up quite a few people. We lowered two boats from the Traveler. One of these was commanded by Captain Pabst and the crew consisted of myself and a man named Wilson. The other boat was under the command of the second mate and had the wheelsman and another sailor as crew. We saw Congressman Macy when he made his jump into the boatful of people and threw them all into the water. Macy was on the upper deck and the boat was being lowered from the stern where it was carried in the same manner as yawls of vessels now-a-days. The boat was packed with people and had been lowered a short distance so it was seven feet perhaps, below the roof of the cabin on which Macy was. He ran from the forward part of the steamer and when he reached the stern, jumped for the boat. He was a very heavy man and the force of his falling weight tore the falls from one end and the entire load of people was tumbled into the water. Many went down at once, others clung to a rope which trailed from the stern. There they hung like a string of fish until the rope was burned off and they went down. Had we been 15 minutes sooner we might have saved a great many more. As we came up an old man was seen clinging to the stern and Captain Sweeney cried to us to rescue him first as he seemed to be in the most danger. When we pulled him on board, he said, “I’ll lay down on the bottom of the boat and trim her,” but before he dropped down he asked if anyone had any tobacco as he had left his on a beam. He was the coolest man I ever saw. After taking him on board we pulled back to the wheelhouse, which shuts in the paddle wheel and there we found Captain Miller, his mate and 12 others. They could have remained there for several hours for they were on the windward side of the boat and the wheelhouse was made of thick planks and being wet would not have burned for a long time. There was a light southeast wind, enough to cause the steamer to drift, and also to drive the flames over the starboard side to leeward. After taking the people from the wheelhouse we pulled around to the leeward side by means of the braces and came near being burned ourselves but managed to pull out all right and made for the steamer. The Traveler picked up nine dead bodies and took them to Port Washington, where they were afterwards interred. The Traveler and Planet at that time were operated by the Chicago and Milwaukee Road, that is how Wheeler happened to be on board as clerk.

Captain Pabst when asked for his remembrances of the day said:

An archaeologist investigates one of Niagara’s paddle-wheels
Photo by WHS, Maritime Preservation and Archaeology Program

I was First Mate of the Traveler running between Chicago and Two Rivers at the time the Niagara was burned. We were with the Niagara at Sheboygan but left before she did and put in at Port Ullio for wood while she was going on towards Milwaukee. I had just stepped on the dock to measure up some wood when I looked down the lake and saw the Niagara afire. I jumped on board again and told the engineer to get up steam as quick as he could and then headed for the burning steamer. As we bore down on her we swung the boats clear, ready for launching. I was in the first that was lowered. The crew gave way with a will and we were quickly alongside the steamer which by this time had burned well down towards the water’s edge. The first man we picked up was an old fellow, who on being pulled into the boat said, ‘Lads I was never so glad to see any one as I am you. Now I will get my trunk.’ He had been floating on a fender and as he dropped into the boat he said ‘I’ll just lie down and ballast the boat.’ We then pulled around to the windward side of the steamer and found Captain Miller, the mate and 10 or 12 more whom we took on board. These were all saved. There had been another steamer there before we arrived but I don’t remember her name. As we were nearing the steamer we saw that the crew were lowering the boat which all steamers carried at their stern those days. The boat was loaded with passengers. As she was about half way down we saw a heavy man, who I afterward learned was Congressman John Macy of Fon du Lac, jump down into the boat. His jump capsized the boat and those in it were thrown into the water and drowned.

Captain Sweeney, when asked for a story of the wreck, said:

I am afraid I cannot aid you with any additional information in regard to the disaster. I was in command of the Traveler and we were with the Niagara at Sheboygan that same day. We left there about noon and stopped at Port Ullio to get wood. It was, as I remember, about 2:30 or 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon when we discovered her on fire. Captain Pabst was the First Officer with me and had charge of the boats we sent to rescue the people. I do not remember how many people we saved. The captain of the Niagara was Captain Miller and the first mate was Gillis or McGillis. John Leonard was the engineer. C. C. Wheeler was the clerk of the Traveler. We stopped at Port Washington and Milwaukee and then went on to Chicago.

Mr. Towsley, now living at Port Washington, gave the following recollections of the disaster:

I was a clerk at the middle pier here during the season of 1856. About 3:30 P. M. on September 24th, being about the usual time for the arrival of the steamers on this line on their up trip, I took the glasses and went out of the office to see if she was in sight. I sighted the steamer off North Point about seven miles from Port Washington; it was coming south and I could see it was on fire. From all appearances no one on the steamer seemed to be aware of that fact as the steamer kept on her course probably 10 minutes when she changed and ran for the shore. Soon her wheels stopped and she appeared not to move except as she drifted. She burned to the water’s edge and then sank. The steamer Traveler of the Ward Line and the steamer Illinois were near Port Ullio when they discovered the steamer to be on fire and headed for the scene and were there in time to save many in the water who were on the gang plank and floats. Captain Fred Miller, the captain of the steamer, was taken from one of the steamer’s wheels. John B. Macy of Fondulac was aboard the steamer and was drowned. I think his body was never found. The steamer had a full load of passengers, many of them emigrants on

Francis Lifeboat in the National Museum of the Great Lakes

their way west. There was a great deal of excitement at Port Washington when the burning steamer was discovered. Two boats, one a Francis lifeboat, and the other a fishing boat, put out for the steamer as soon as they could be manned. Others of the inhabitants went along the shore on foot towards the spot where the steamer seemed drifting, others started in wagons in the hope to be of assistance. Port Washington then was a village of from 1,000 to 1,200 inhabitants. The hull of the steamer sank about six miles north of this place in deep water. I do not recollect that any attempt was ever made to raise it.

There it lies today on the bottom of the lake probably covered with the shifting sands, while in the little cemetery a few mounds pointed out to the occasional visitor as the graves of the victims of the Niagara disaster, are all that remain to recall the great tragedy of 1856.


* Niagara – U. S. no official number – wooden hull, sidewheel, passenger and freight steamboat built in 1845 at Buffalo, New York , by Jacob W. Banta for C. N. Reed & Co., Erie, Pennsylvania.

Dimensions – 255 ‘ o.a. x 33’6 ” beam x 14’ depth, 1099 tons. Engine, vertical beam, cylinder 65″ diameter, length of stroke 10 feet, built by Shepherd Iron Works, Buffalo, New York; view of Niagara Falls was painted on the paddle wheel housings. When new the Niagara was the flagship of the Reed Line and ran between Dunkirk, New York and Detroit, Michigan. Later on the route was changed, being from Buffalo to Chicago and way ports. In May 1855 the Niagara was chartered to a Canadian concern, the Simcoe and Lake Huron Railway, “The Great Northern Route”, and ran between Collingwood, Ontario, and Chicago, Illinois. The same arrangement continued in 1856 and was in effect when the steamer burned.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

The previous story was found in some old scrapbooks bought at a farm auction by John Nelson of Sheboygan , Wisconsin. He showed them to his friend William A. McDonald of Detroit, one of the earliest members of GLHS, who has often contributed to Inland Seas. Mr. McDonald has edited the story and added the statistical data. He says the story of the Niagara is not well known, the ship is not listed in the “Lytle List” but is of special interest just now as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster. The scrapbook account was a clipping from the Sheboygan Herald of Saturday, September 4, 1897, which had appeared in the Sheboygan Sunday Sentinel earlier that year.

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